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“Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier” opened in October at the Chicago History Museum and is on view through August of 2017. Via 30 garments—from gowns to Navy WAVES uniforms—the exhibition tells the story of Main Rousseau Bocher, who grew up in Chicago, trained in Paris, and found success as a couturier in New York in the 19302 and ’40s, even designing the wedding dress for the Duchess of Windsor in 1937. We talked with the museum’s curator of costumes, Petra Slinkard, about the show and about Mainbocher’s lasting impact on the fashion world.
WHITEWALL: The costume collection at the Chicago History Museum is quite large. Can you tell us about its history and the lens through which you continue to collect?
PETRA SLINKARD: It’s extraordinarily large. We have about 60,000 pieces in the collection. The collection began in 1920, when we had an opportunity to purchase a very large personal collection that belonged to Charles Gunther. He had amassed this huge collection of items, particularly pertaining to the Civil War. With that came a lot of clothing and a lot of our presidential pieces, like the suit worn to the inauguration of President John Adams, a couple of George Washington’s pieces, a lot of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln pieces . . .
And then in 1974 the museum’s guild created its own organization, the Costume Council. That brought on a second wave of attention dedicated to collecting. Typically, the lens of supply is born in Chicago, made in Chicago, designed in Chicago, or worn in Chicago. For us it’s more about the story and the provenance, although we do have really fantastic examples of high-end, artistically driven pieces, like Paul Poiret’s lampshade dress, one of two in the world.
WW: Let’s talk about the Mainbocher exhibition. The title of the show makes the distinction that he was the first American couturier. At the time, was it unique for an American designer to train in Paris?
PS: Very uncommon! When he went to Paris in the First World War, he transferred and when he was discharged he decided to stay in Paris. As a young man he had studied fashion illustration, and he fell into a great position at Harper’s Bazaar. He designed for them for two years and then from there he was plucked from to work at Vogue, where by 1927 he was made editor in chief.
Then he has a moment on the cusp of turning 40. He decides to try something new, quits his job, and decides he’s going to open a couture salon. This is 1929, and in October, of course, the stock market crashes. So he takes that time and teaches himself dressmaking. By November 1930 is when he has his first show, and by 1931 you’re starting to see his name in the fashion press. It was the right time and people were, I think, excited to see something a little new, a little more focused on minimalism. And then by 1937 he’s designing for the Duchess of Windsor, and that catapults him to the front page.
WW: What are some hallmarks of his design?
PS: Throughout his career the hallmarks of his design tended to be an emphasis on minimalism, on sophistication, very expensive and well-made fabrics, and construction. He was extremely decisive and also a little bit controlling in his designs. He would do a trompe l’oeil necklace, making the decision for you what jewelry should go with it. There’s a utility to his designs that extends beyond one collection. He also was not extremely interested in trends. As far as actual garments, the short cocktail dress was one that he started to promote early on; the strapless gown he was introducing as early as 1934. He also was very instrumental in looking at wartime fashion and thinking of ways to utilize fabric and what he had in his disposal.
1940 is when he opens his salon in New York, because the Second World War forces him from Paris.
WW: At what point did he start designing uniforms like the ones for the Navy WAVES and the Girl Scouts of America?
PS: 1942. The wife of the undersecretary of the Navy knew Mainbocher from working at Vogue, and I think she understood that, because of the way he designed, it would lend itself to designing one suit that needed to be worn by a variety of different women of various shapes, various heights. And he created this collection of uniforms that worked universally. That was one thing that drew me to the story. He was designing for an upper echelon of American and European society, and then he takes this sidestep and creates uniforms and with great pride, that are worn by thousands of women.